Before: Mississippi at a Crossroads
On Halloween night, a student from Yale University in Connecticut stopped for gas in Port Gibson, Mississippi. A hundred years earlier, during the Civil War, Union troops had entered Mississippi through this same town. Now, in the eyes of local people, a new invasion had begun. Like the Union troops, the new invader was a Yankee, a northerner. He was easy to spot: a white, blond-haired stranger in a car with a black man and woman.
Four local men took action. They ordered the white man out of the car, beat him to the pavement, then circled, kicking and pounding. After the bloodied man was finally allowed to climb back into the car, the thugs followed it for miles along dark roads.
Two days later, two of the strangers—the white man and the black man—were spotted driving north out of the town of Natchez. A shiny green Chevy Impala with two white men in it pulled up behind their car. They made a U-turn, but the Chevy followed, riding their bumper. Heading south past farms and fields, the two cars sped up. Each time the first car roared ahead, the Chevy stayed on its tail. Engines groaning, gravel flying, soon the cars topped a hundred miles an hour. Finally, the Chevy pulled even and forced the strangers’ car into a ditch.
This time the locals had a gun. They ordered the driver to get out. He hesitated—then punched the gas. The car lurched back onto the road. A bullet shattered the rear window. Another tore into a side panel. A third grazed a rear tire. The driver kept going and managed to duck down a side road as the green Chevy roared past.
It was November 1963. In Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, President John F. Kennedy was not thinking about Mississippi. He was wondering whether he should pull the United States out of the Vietnam War. We will never know what Kennedy might have done, because an assassin’s bullet ended his life later that month in Texas. Something else happened that month that changed the future. For one weekend in Mississippi, thousands of bone-poor citizens gave America a long-overdue lesson.A Lesson in Democracy
The two men who’d been attacked and shot were Freedom Election volunteers. They and others like them were working to get black citizens of Mississippi registered to vote. Many black Mississippians had never voted—mostly out of fear. When slaves were freed after the Civil War, they had voted in great numbers, but in 1890 this basic right was taken away. Mississippi and other Southern states passed laws requiring blacks to pay poll taxes—that is, to pay in order to vote. Few could afford such taxes. Other laws forced any black person who tried registering to vote to pass a reading test, or to interpret part of the state constitution. Blacks who still insisted on registering had their names published in the paper. They were then beaten, or had their homes shot into at night. By 1964, just 7 percent of blacks in Mississippi could vote.
But an election was coming that would decide the state’s next governor. Everyone knew that Paul B. Johnson would win the election. His father had been governor before him. White voters liked him. Johnson firmly supported segregation, the web of laws and practices that separated people by race and made African Americans second-class citizens. And he stood firmly against integration, the movement to make blacks and whites equal under the law, with the same rights to use schools and other public institutions. Johnson literally stood against integration. As lieutenant governor, the second highest office in the state, he had physically blocked a black man from entering the state university.
Mississippi had a long history of racial division and violence, as you will see in chapter 2. During those first days of November 1963, the violence erupted against black Mississippians and the students who had come from other states to help them vote. A Freedom Election worker was shot at. A rock-throwing mob broke up a Freedom Election rally. Cops closed down another. Seventy election workers were arrested on charges that ranged from disturbing the peace to driving cars too heavy for their license plates. Roughed up or just told to get out of town, the out-of-state students got a taste of how Mississippi law worked in 1963.
The terror nearly succeeded. The organizers of the Freedom Election had hoped that 200,000 African Americans would cast Freedom Votes in their churches, cafes, barber shops, and pool halls. This Freedom Election would be separate from the official state election, but under an old law, the parallel ballots of the Freedom Election would be legal. They might be used to challenge the results of the official election.
In the end, after police seized some of the Freedom Election ballots, black Mississippians had cast 82,000 votes. Not enough to keep Johnson from becoming the state’s new governor, but each vote was a sign of change in Mississippi. Bigger changes were coming. Mississippi stood at a crossroads.It’s Going to Take an Army
A few months before the Freedom Election in Mississippi, a quarter of a million people in the nation’s capital had heard Martin Luther King Jr. talk about his dream—that someday the United States would live up to the promise in its Declaration of Independence that “all Men are created equal.” Prejudice against African Americans existed across the country, but racism reached its peak in the South. Everyone knew where it was worst. Roy Wilkins, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had said, “There is no state with a record which approaches that of Mississippi in inhumanity, murder, brutality, and racial hatred. It is absolutely at the bottom of the list.”
In Mississippi, a black body floating in a river was “as common as a snake.” Spies and informers working for the state kept files on people and organizations that supported integration. Civil rights workers were routinely arrested and beaten. Years of peaceful protest had been met with bombings, beatings, and murder. And the rest of America did not seem to care. Martin Luther King Jr. had turned the nation’s eyes toward racial inequality in southern cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia. Even King, though, did not dare to organize in Mississippi. It remained a neglected outpost of civil rights, too remote, too rural, too simmering with hatred to offer the slightest hope.
After the Freedom Election, its chief organizer said that “the Negroes of Mississippi will not get the vote until the equivalent of an army is sent here.” And an idea blossomed. What if hundreds of college students from all over the country poured into the state and spent a summer there? Wouldn’t America pay attention then?
And what if these volunteers did more than get African Americans registered to vote? They could run Freedom Schools, teaching black history and black literature to black kids who would never study such things in their segregated public schools. They could set up Freedom Houses, with libraries, day care, and evening classes in reading and voting rights. And at the end of the summer, delegates from a new Freedom Party would to go the national convention of the Democratic party. Under the spotlight of national news, they would claim to be Mississippi’s rightful representatives.
The “army” arrived the very next summer. College kids from all over the country descended on Mississippi. Organizers called it the Mississippi Summer Project, but the summer of 1964 would come to be known as Freedom Summer.
Although Freedom Summer brought out the best of America, it brought out the worst in Mississippi. When word of the summer project leaked, it sparked rage and resentment. Hadn’t Northerners flooded into Mississippi after the Civil War? And now they were coming back. An “invasion,” some Mississippians called it. Governor Johnson declared, “We are going to see that law and order is maintained, and maintained Mississippi style.” Jackson, Mississippi’s capital city, beefed up its police force with shotguns, teargas, and a six-ton tank. The city’s mayor said, “We’re going to be ready for them. … They won’t have a chance.”
White rural Mississippians stockpiled kerosene, shotguns, and dynamite. New life flowed into the Ku Klux Klan, the underground terrorist and racist organization that dated back to the violent years after the Civil War. One warm evening in April, the Klan’s burning crosses blazed in courthouse lawns, town squares, and open fields across sixty counties. The stage was set for confrontation.
Before the summer ended, black churches would be torched. Homes and Freedom Houses would be bombed. Violence of all kinds— including murder—would erupt. The violence would indeed turn the nation’s attention to Mississippi. But Freedom Summer would be more than just violence.
That summer, America began to change. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act. Slowly, grudgingly, the “Whites Only” signs began to disappear from lunch counters and water fountains across the South. Meanwhile, in Mississippi, several hundred students and their host families showed Americans, black and white, how to treat each other with uncommon decency.
For the volunteers, the summer would be a journey into an unfamiliar America of dirt roads and tumbledown shacks. They would teach in crude classrooms and learn the human cost of racism. Going porch to porch to talk about voting, they tested their faith in democracy. When it was over, shaken by violence, inspired by courage, they seemed to have aged years in a single season.
“Mississippi changed everything for anyone who was there,” volunteer Gloria Clark later said. Many of the volunteers would go on to be part of events that defined the 1960s, such as the movements for women’s rights and against the Vietnam War. First, though, they had to survive Freedom Summer.
Copyright © 2020 by Bruce Watson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.